Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

21st century advances in engineering and technology have lead to the creation of the most fascinating design and architectural projects ever imagined. However, in this desire for progress, we often forget about the psychological and even architectural barriers that some humans face when considering living and working in these amazing spaces.  For some people, these barriers are true obstacles, for others they become an enticing challenge to better this world of modern design to ensure that all can access and take equal enjoyment of it. The development of projects that fully consider accessibility from the initial concept stages is an important and major concern for many architects. Most important today is establishing an open communication regarding these issues and their vital importance. We bring you an interview between two prominent experts of architecture who explore the issues and advantages of pushing professionals to think in a more holistic approach to universal access.

Here, Mimi Zeiger, professor, author, founder of loud paper currently, freelance writer and contributing editor to Architect magazine, talks to Michael Graves, globally renowned architect, and household name through his designs for Target stores. Michael, after suffering a health incident that paralyzed him from the waist down, utilized his disability as a vantage point from which to create more accessible architecture and product design. Drawing from his personal experience, Mr. Graves advocates greater access to spaces and products for all humans in a relatable and functional manner that never loses the joyful touch of great design.

His passion for the improvement for accessiblity radiates clearly from his words and through his projects, which shows his creativity applied not only to architecture, but also to healthcare enivornments and consumer products developed through his vision of making good design for everyday life.

Mimi Zeiger: Let’s begin with your view of accessibility. What is your definition of it?

Michael Graves: Well I guess two things. One, thinking in an orthodox way that accessibility is that somebody like me who’s paralyzed, could do everything you could do. On the other hand I know I can’t. There are some people who get very grouchy because they can’t. But your life changes and you are not able to do what others do. And you can’t wake up in the morning feeling badly about that. You got to understand that you do other things. I find it amusing actually that when I’m invited to dinners and various events in New York depending on whether it’s a private house or apartment or one of the social clubs or wherever or one of the hotels, I usually get to the ballroom, the big room via the kitchen. So I have a whole spiel that I use going to the kitchen and talking to the waiters and the cooks and all of that. I don’t let it get to me. Although, it gets a little testy when somebody doesn’t realize when you’re in a wheelchair and your table is in the middle of a sea of 300 tables. You can’t get there. As they say, you can’t get there from here.

MZ: So much for advances.

MG: I know. I guess to answer your question; accessibility is what you think it is.

At least I do. Especially if you are disabled you really have to come to grips with it. And better have your humor about you. We’ll touch on an example that people use. They say all buildings should have ramps. Well maybe, maybe not.
I think it’s important for certain buildings to be elevated in our sense of grandeur to have steps. But that doesn’t preclude some clever architect like myself knowing how to make those work very well with ramps instead of putting on a temporary wooden ramp and saying we’ll get to it someday. New buildings are not a problem. It’s the law. And so I think that I would prefer that old buildings stay as they are. We find ways to add access to them through the sides.

We can do something to the side of the building to make it a second entry. I don’t mean to use second as in first, second and third. But alternative entry is better. But there is a building in Princeton, which is on the campus, which was the first building at Princeton, Nassau Hall.

It’s a wonderful 18th century building here at Princeton. It’s a big building, big simple block of a building made out of dark fieldstone. And has a series of steps with two arms that come out from the steps with tigers on them. And for graduation they put a big stage on the front of Nassau Hall. Then they have the problem of how do you get a wheelchair up to the stage because none of that’s worked out. Recently there was an exhibition in Nassau Hall, which required a ramp. So, they built a temporary metal and wood ramp there that was there for a few days and disfigured the building. Well, I know that I can make a ramp that integrates into the design. People will still know it’s there and they think the building’s better because of it.

MZ: It brings up an interesting point about the invisibility of these sorts of codes and ADA accessibility or making something visible. Like is it, should we as architects make physical the fact that there are multiple kinds of users to a building and celebrate the accessibility of the building?

MG: There are multiple types. One of the things you find out when you’re in my condition is that all paraplegics are different. All quadriplegics are different. They handle their disability differently but that’s not what I’m talking about. Their disability is different. Some can do some things some can’t do. Some can do other things. It’s amazing how different I guess we all are. That’s what makes it so fascinating for medicine is that we are all different. And just like you say the users are different from children to elderly to people with arthritis to the obese.

MZ: This brings up the point that architects and artists and users need to be their own best advocates. Does accessibility need you as an advocate—the front person to be fighting this fight? I mean, it’s a lot to take on.

MG: Well, when I was first paralyzed I said well I’m going to get an iBot. It’s the chair that goes up and down stairs, which I did. The iBot is a pretty great thing. But it’s a little bit fragile and needs TLC. And, when I wanted to buy it and get my insurance to pay for part of it, I found out that it’s not covered by insurance. So I dug a little bit and found out that the insurance companies colluded so they wouldn’t have to pay for it because it is more expensive. And they call it not a wheelchair but a transportation device. And oh by the way we don’t cover transportation devices. So this teaches you very quickly that the world is more political than you ever, ever thought. And there is nobody out there that says oh the Department of Transportation?  Will you call Mr. Johnson & Johnson and tell him that he can’t do this? And the insurance companies can’t get together and call it something else. It’s a wheelchair. It’s a chair on wheels. So now Johnson & Johnson finds that since it’s not covered by insurance ever, that, therefore people can’t afford it, they can’t afford to make it. So it’s going to go out of production in 2013.

But I just think that there’s a lot for the government to do. Where it gets political is the government can’t do any of this as long as we’re fighting two wars and we’re in debt. So we’re going to cut things before we add more responsibility to anybody like the Department of Transportation or Health and Welfare.

MZ: After you became paralyzed what were the first objects you thought to design or redesign?

MG: The first was the patient room. I was in eight hospitals, which I think was probably a lot for what I was going through. So I had the advantage of seeing how it was done and one room was worse than the next. Some of it was just a question of money, like things needing to be fixed that weren’t. Some of it was political. The kind of people that aid you, in other words, the aids. I could tell you the story. I was being transferred from my bed, this was early on, from my bed to a wheelchair and the aid was using a Hoyer Lift. A Hoyer Lift is a brand name but that’s what most of them are, Hoyers. It’s a strap that’s put under your legs and upper body and lifts you up and in a sense drops you into the chair comfortably. It takes you a few minutes to strap you in and gets you up. But one time I was up in the Hoyer Lift ready to be put in my chair. (My eight year old son says daddy’s flying when I’m in my Hoyer Lift.) And the aid looked at her watch and said “Oh, I’m late for my break. I ‘ve got to go to my break.” And I said to her, “Not before you finish; put me down in the chair.” She said. “You just watch.”

MZ: She left? But how do we make the design of these places better so that we actually encourage a sense of responsibility among the staff?

MG: I told you the story of the aids just because it wasn’t just the physicality of the room. It’s the whole scene that you have to be aware of. I was in my bed and ringing for the nurse. And there was a button on the side of the bed that didn’t work. So you can’t yell, it’s 11:00 at night and the 88-year-old lady next door is asleep so you can’t yell. But my light was on. And the light was on a string, the on and off switch was on a string that had been tied several times. And had been brought down to my bed and tied on to the rail on the side of my bed. So I pulled that and it broke and the light stayed on. I thought, “They keep fixing the string, but they don’t fix the light.” What does it take? This wouldn’t happen at IBM. You think either these people don’t care or there’s a woeful lack of money. You don’t know. But if this were my office this would happen once and they would fix it.

MZ: Are we heading to a point of crisis with healthcare design and just healthcare in general?

MG: Actually I think it’s getting better.

MZ: Yeah?

MG: Yeah. I think that from what you see in magazines and design schools and so on at least people are thinking to view it as a problem and as an issue.

MZ: Now with your practice you say you have your employees spend a couple days in a wheelchair so that they start to understand sort of where you’re coming from. I read that you do a lot of research and data collecting on other people who are paralyzed or disabled and in wheelchairs.

MG: We do. We do things in product design that we don’t do architecturally. It can’t hurt but sometimes it gets to be too much. My team interviews people and they have focus groups—whether we’re designing a new component or whether we’re designing a new garbage can. And architects usually do this by the seat of their pants because they’re in this world so they design the wastebasket for themselves. And it’s good enough for them, then it’s probably going to work for 99% of the rest of the people. But that’s, I don’t think that’s so much an attitude, it’s just we’re trained to rely on life experiences. And we think quite a lot of our life experiences. And when we are doing something we know nothing about like designing a federal courthouse, that we indeed do a lot of interviewing especially when it’s the first time out. A lot of looking, a lot of listening, a lot of talking to judges, or whatever it is. So, the same thing is true in hospital design.

MZ: Your work, especially your product design work but also your architecture, has always had a certain amount of wit to it.

MG: So I’ve heard.

MZ: It’s not necessarily a funny matter. Do you feel like you have room to bring that into healthcare?

MG: Yes. I don’t know how you make something overly serious. I’m just coming from the other side. But I suppose if there’s a moment you can do that, it hasn’t occurred to me to do that yet. We’re so engaged in just selling the issues and getting that right and doing it with a certain amount of grace and good looks. Including myself I’ve tried to teach our healthcare clients that design isn’t looks. Design is looks and functionality together. You think it looks good because it’s designed well and it works well because it’s designed well.

MZ: I guess if you were to sort of talk about issues of accessibility to students, what would you want to motivate them with? What would be the takeaway for them?

MG: My passion. I try to do the important buildings. Buildings that have an impact on society and buildings that counted. When I was paralyzed, I continued to use those goals. I didn’t set them aside. But now if you have four pieces of pie and only time in the day for three, what do you leave out? So you think about the kinds of things you don’t do that are at least important. And I said when I was paralyzed I realized I had to include the fourth piece of the pie. I didn’t use that stupid analogy but I knew I couldn’t leave anything out and that healthcare was going to have to be added and not replace something if I was going to be happy. Even though I’m soft spoken I feel I care very, very much about it. I care about getting it right, too, whatever right is.